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Milford Sound, NZ

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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Getaway - Shelly Beach


Getaway

It started well, the week-long family holiday I’d planned nearly a year ago. Pete piloted our packed-to-the-rafters minivan up the western side of the Coromandel Peninsula, along a wiggly coastal drive hugging shimmering blue vistas. I napped during the first 20 or so minutes, which Pete claims was most spectacular. “You missed the best part,” he said. What I did see was turquoise-blue water so close I could throw a stone into it, and mountains flanking the other side.
Shelly Beach, Coromandel

We stop at the (packed) Coromandel Mussel Kitchen about three hours into our trip. We wait 45 minutes for mussel chowder (Fiona) a side salad plus mussel pot spiced with fragrant green curry (me); corn dogs (Finley) and a burger, which, including the bun, is nearly the size of a human head (Pete). We (adults) each enjoy a mug of the Mussel Kitchen’s own Pilsner beer. I surrender a $100 note and get $7 change. For lunch.
 

Another ten minutes up the road, just past Coromandel Town, is the Shelly Beach Top Ten. I’d researched the holiday park on Trip Advisor and called the office three times before booking. I wanted a budget option that wouldn’t require our nonexistent tent. Our family believes anything with communal kitchens and bathrooms is camping.

Back in January, the manager (Kay) convinced me to take a lodge room at $115/night, rather than a kitchen cabin at $140. She said the lodge room would be bigger than the cabin. This sounded  strange, but we’d stayed at other Top Ten parks in units, rooms and cabins and had never been disappointed.

We get a key for room 12. It contains a double bed and a twin bunk set into the wall. It has a closet where we can stash three bags of canned and dry food, towels and extra bedding. There’s just enough room for a chair beside the bed. I pay $650 cash for the balance of our stay (Pete just sold his car and we brought some proceeds). Our family of four has committed to seven nights in a small box. At least it has a view of the bay.
View from the lodge at Shelly Beach Top Ten

The kids run off to bounce on the jumping pillow, Pete naps and I wander to the shell-filled beach to ponder my poor planning. Memories of Ewa Beach (which must be one of the worst neighborhoods to stay on Oahu, Hawaii http://pickendawn.blogspot.co.nz/2013/06/pit-bull-paradise.html  flood my head like high tide slamming the shore. Pete appears and says, “I don’t know why she told you the lodge had more room. That’s ridiculous. We can’t stay here seven nights.”
 

“I’m sorry. I really am. I don’t understand it, either.” My contrition is sincere. So are my doubts about whether my husband can survive semi-camping. At home, his head is bent over his phone whenever I enter a room. My beloved answers every ping, ding and whistle as if poised to perform an organ transplant. He’s either held captive by Apple or Netflix or something else on a screen. We’re too far from technology. Our family vacation is about to crash and burn.

“I didn’t bring you here to make you miserable,” I say. We have cell phone coverage, but the connection is slow. Maybe we’ll stay three nights and leave…

We sashay around the lodge kitchen, borrowing plates, pots and utensils from the shared stash. A European cyclist at the counter beside me paws knives and forks before returning them to the tray and selecting another set. Behind the sign instructing us not to prepare or consume meals in the lodge, a woman sits at a coffee table covered with lettuce and dumpling wrappers. She folds each one methodically before arranging it on a tray.

I join the kids at the jumping pillow, where a dozen children bounce. One of the youngest kids, a blondie of about three with crew cut, spits. Children shout, “He just spitted! Ewww!” I look up from the picnic table where I’m sitting and glare. “Do that again and I’ll tell your parents,” I growl.

Pete and I make pizza in a half-working oven, to-ing and fro-ing around other guests in various stages of cooking: filleting just-caught fish, prying sea urchins, grilling burgers, burning fries. Pete and I start eating while Fi and Finn play, washing down slices of pepperoni, mushroom and red pepper with full tumblers of white wine.

At the next picnic table, a large woman wearing a see-through beach cover over bikini top hums loudly. It reminds me of an opening scene in “Orange is the New Black,” where an inmate sings in the shower. Just then, a woman wearing bright orange sweat pants walks past. “You know, there is a kind of prison vibe here,” I say, as man with gray stubbled face and tattooed neck crosses the courtyard. Pete says, "Yeah, but there's more space in the jail cells." Another man wearing dark shades in the twilight stares at me. Not a ‘nice to meet you stare,’ but one that barks, ‘I don’t like you.’ Maybe I’m imagining things. The stare, though, is real.

Our lodge room is stiflingly hot. Pete says not to open a window until we’re ready for bed, because the light will attract bugs. We sit outside for fresh air. And the sound of heavy metal emanating from a car parked near a tent site. I recognize a Motley Crue song from my high school days. “They’re probably people from the West side of Auckland,” Pete later explains. “They’re called Westies, and they’re still 30 years back in time.”

The music is so frickin’ loud, I walk to the office to see if I can get the manager to tell them to turn it down. “I was just over there and didn’t hear any loud music,” she says. Nevertheless, she rounds the lodge, walks to the Westies and tells them to turn it down. Now I can hear them arguing. “Well, you fucking told me…” And then, “Fuck you, motha fucka…” Thankfully, the kids aren’t around to hear.

Around ten o’clock, Finley returns to the room. He’d been playing spotlight (flashlight tag) with other kids. Fiona and I brush our teeth together in the tidy communal bathroom while Pete and Finley do the same on the men’s side. Pete later tells me each stall ‘was disgusting.’ I don’t ask for details.

Finley shares news after we’re together in our lodge room. “There was a fight in the kitchen,” he says. “They were using bad language.”

We turn the lights off and open a window. It’s still hot. I read aloud two stories from my Kindle for the kids. I hear Pete breathing heavily, dozing, before the end of the second story. Sleep doesn’t last long. Between music on one side of our room, loud talking on the other side and lack of ventilation, Pete and I fail to convince the Sandman to stick around.

We plead our case at the office the next morning, saying there’s no way the four of us can sleep in that room another six nights. Despite the sign saying, “No refunds for early check-outs,” Kay is polite and sympathetic, returning all but $50 of our money.

We pack and leave in a hurry. I’m giddy, listening to Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Getaway” en route to Whitianga, on the other side of the Coromandel Peninsula. Sometimes, you must get away from your getaway.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Deflowered in the Forest


                  Deflowered in the Forest

The pros, Vicki and Donna

Virgin no more. To the sport of mountain biking (abbreviated as MTB), that is. How did I make it 44 years without ever trying MTB? Because it seemed counterintuitive to bring a bicycle into the forest and ride through tight spaces, mud, roots and trees. Because I like cycling flat roads along the beach on my gear-free lavender Schwinn. Because I like knowing I won’t plunge off a cliff (unless I attempt something supremely stupid such as texting while riding, which I’ve seen other cyclists do).

I shelved my fears to mountain bike with two of my Jogger mates, Donna and Vicki. Both are experienced riders who offered to show me the ropes and not leave me, bruised and bloodied, on the forest floor.

We drove about an hour south, to Rotorua, which is the ‘spiritual home of mountain biking in New Zealand,’ according to http://www.riderotorua.com/.  The 130-kilometer Whakarewarewa and Redwoods Forest network is one of the oldest trail systems in New Zealand.  Dirt, mud and bark-covered paths wind through Larch, Douglas Fir and California Redwood trees.  

A Little History...

http://redwoods.co.nz/ says the forest opened to the public in 1970 and was sold to Fletcher Challenge (a now-defunct multinational construction, forestry, building and energy company, according to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fletcher_Challenge) in 1996. Forest assets were split and sold again in 2003. Mountain bike trail access and building were regulated the following year, with the Rotorua Mountain Bike Club serving key roles in trail maintenance and development. The Rotorua District Council overtook forest management in 2006. Forest land was returned to Maori in 2009. Today, the Redwoods is maintained by the District Council and the Whakarewarewa Forest continues to be managed by Kaingaroa Timberlands. http://redwoods.co.nz/about/

The upshot of all this back-and-forth is  MTB trails are free to the public, but some areas close intermittently for logging.

There’s an information center, toilets and pay showers at the trail head. More importantly, there’s coffee.


Learn and Make Tracks

I borrowed one of Vicki’s old bikes, a sturdy bulldozer with knobby tires and gears that changed with a finger flick. Getting the gears right was tricky, at first. I couldn’t remember up and down. Several tries, and I (mostly) got there. You know you’re in the wrong gear when you’re grinding uphill and suddenly can’t budge. 



We started on the Creek Track, rated easy.  I hopped off the bike a couple times ahead of steep chutes, including two that crossed the creek. The riderotorua site says even “skilled riders have come to grief on these technical sections.” Sheesh. No wonder. Easy?

The first half hour required tremendous concentration. For those of us with spinning monkey brains (a.k.a. mothers) this is disconcerting. There was no thinking about what to cook for dinner or which emails needed returning, only a steady pulse of thoughts like, ‘Watch the tree on your left; there’s a mud patch ahead; oh, shit, that drop is steep. Brake, brake, BRAKE!’

“You’re really quiet back there,” says Donna. “It’s kind of eerie.”

I’m concentrating. It’s MTB Zen. Until I fly over the handlebars. I’m determined to keep the bike under me, rather than behind me, at least during this first attempt.

Dips and drops ebb, giving way to a flat zig-zag of single track covered in rich red mulch. Just before we reach the end of this track, two skinny Asian tourists, one with a large camera around her neck, appear.

Donna tells them, “It’s not safe to walk on the bicycle path. You could get hurt. Best sticking to the road.”

They look surprised and ask for further directions before we pedal away.

We grind up a wide gravel road and enter a stump and matchstick patch of cleared forest. Gray stumps and logs litter the ground, detritus divided by dirt bike tracks. No longer under the tree canopy, I survey the scene, trying to determine which route might be easiest and safest.

Channeling my Inner Eight-Year-Old

“Let’s try this,” says Vicki. She’s chosen one of the Challenge tracks, a grade three (out of five) trail that runs nearly a kilometer through stump land. We won’t attempt Down the Guts (grade four, advanced) or Boulderdash (grade five, expert). Not today, anyway.

“We’ll see you at the bottom,” says Donna. “Remember, it’s not a race.”


Deep breaths. I shove off, flinging myself and the bike down a dirt path that looks more motocross trail than mountain bike track. I ease off the brakes. You need enough speed to mount hills before hitting the table top plateaus. At the crest, you drop again, gaining speed. My eight-year-old, Finley, would love this. 

I love this - wide open spaces and the feeling of flying. It reminds me of skiing. Mountain biking combines the adrenaline rush of the slopes and exhilaration of navigating twists and turns – minus cold and snow. And trails have cool names.

We tackle two Challenge tracks – the second is nearly half a kilometer longer and just as fun. Donna and Vicki wait for me at the end. My mouth widens into a Joker smile the whole way down. Even though I’m not nearly as fast as my friends, I enjoy the circus of gravity and the sense of adventure that comes from trying a new sport.

We return on a track called Dipper (grade two, easy), where I can nearly relax and enjoy scenery beyond what's two feet in front of me. I later read it’s an iconic trail, flat, fast and wide, suited for families and beginners. It meanders through forest and finally, Redwood trees. I lose the track twice, bouncing over small logs marking trail boundaries.

“You trying to escape on us, Dawn? Going back to the car park?” jokes Vicki.

Don’t be silly. Because I don’t know where the car park might be from here.

Donna suggests I pick a line and stick with it. “What you look at is where you’ll go,” she says.  She’s right. That, and the advice to build a stable platform on the downhills by holding my feet evenly on the pedals, helps.

I survive two hours of climbing and whizzing, arms shuddering, thighs contracting, before we reach the end.

I’m pleased. Nothing's broken; I kept the bike under me and had a hell of a time.

MTB virgin no more. I’ll be back.


Me and Donna at the end



Cyclist Selfie

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Queen for a Day

                             Queen for a Day



It’s September 5th in New Zealand (still the 4th in the States). My birthday. I thought I might brush this one off. I’ve been grumpy. It’s been six weeks since the Husband got laid off. Neither of us knows what’s next, so we’re living in limbo with my knee-jerk panic and sense of frustration we haven’t figured this out – yesterday.

Earlier this week, I told Facebook: forget my birthday. Changed the setting so no one can attach September 5th to me. Except my family and close friends, including my running mates, who know this day is mine. But why should legions of people online, many of whom I don’t know personally, know it’s my birthday? Who needs well wishes from around the world?  Apparently, me.

I had a change of heart last night and whispered to Fb: “Go ahead, tell my friends about the birthday. Google was going to let the cat out of the bag, anyway.”

I set my alarm for 5:30 this morning. I hit snooze once, popping up at 5:40. I check my phone and see an email alert from my friend, Leanne, whose birthday is close to mine (tomorrow? Gosh, I’m horrible remembering birthdays!). My fellow Virgo is one of the most thoughtful people I know (she’s also a talented TV reporter in LA: http://abc7.com/about/newsteam/leanne-suter/ )

My day’s already off to a good start, since I’m thinking of Suter (we all called each other by surnames at the TV station where we met in Grand Rapids, Michigan). I check her anonymous Facebook profile to see if I can suss out her birthday. The only picture she’s tagged in shows a Superman doll sitting in Sean’s hospital room, plus pictures of Fiona and Finley I’d taped to the wall. Leanne and her then-husband had sent Superman to help Sean heal.

I slip into the next room – a spare bedroom/office, where I press my phone’s meditation app, which is set to chime after seven minutes. It’s about all my monkey mind can handle. During these seven minutes, I listen to the ocean outside the windows, think about what I want my birthday to mean and say nice things to myself. I’m a slightly-less-geeky version of the SNL character Stuart Smalley, who says, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” Unlike Stuart, I do not practice before a mirror.

Gray wisps of cotton wool feather the skies over the Mount beach as I pound the sand for a five- kilometre run. My left knee’s still a grumpy old man – he feels about 84-years-old, while the rest of me feels 24. I’d be in better shape now – at 44 – than I was twenty years ago, if it weren’t for the achy, possibly torn bits of tendon scratching about the inside of my knee. No sunrise run up the Mount this year.

There’s no sun, anyway. Day breaks without the orange fire ball rising from the Pacific. Seagulls skitter at the shoreline and squawk overhead. None of them bombard my head. This is a good sign. I pass a man walking two German shorthair pointers. Another sign. They remind me of my dogs, Greta and Baron, growing up. One dog ran away and the other was hit by a car.

After the run, I’m clambering up the narrow wooden spiral staircase from the garage when the kids yell, “Don’t come up! Close your eyes!”

I drop the empty recycling bin and do as instructed. “Here, put this in front of your face,” says Fiona, holding a newspaper. She walks me to the dining room table and says, “Okay, open your eyes.”

“Surprise!” shouts Finley, Fiona and Pete. The kids motion to the table, while my husband places strips of uncooked bacon into a large pan with surgical precision.

Cards, flowers, a bottle of bubbly, two small boxes of chocolates and a bag with Fiona’s writing sit atop the dining table. My eyes well. Such care and planning to have it all here at seven a.m. I take turns giving my family sweaty hugs. I open the card from Pete first. Inside is a voucher for a white water rafting trip. He listened when I told him, “No electronics. Nothing useful.” Just an experience with him.

Finley’s card includes a coupon for laundry soap, candy, four dollars in change and a 20-dollar bill, which I return to him.



Fiona’s present is a red plush doll made of felt whose stitching is starting to unravel between the legs. “I made it in my spare time,” she says. “I even brought it to school.”

I shower and get dressed while listening to my favorite radio show, "This American Life." The episode called “Back to School” http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/474/back-to-school talks about how children learn. And how they don’t learn if they grow up with chaos and stress at home. I think about my kids’ early years and develop a new theory: maybe the kids have attached so well to Pete (despite what Fiona says, she adores him) because they felt so much love from Sean. Their father gave them security from birth. Their stepfather will provide stability throughout their lives.

Pete serves me a microwaved egg on toast with coffee and bacon. It tastes like a weekend morning. Like love.

After breakfast, the kids decorate cupcakes for a school celebration. Apparently, today is also the birthday of their mascot, Mountie. Fiona and Finley spread the cupcakes with green icing which they layer with sprinkles, M&M’s and lollipops. I drive them to school. The last glimpse of my small fries is Fiona ahead, Finley walking behind, carrying an ice cream container of cupcakes, wearing a black cowboy hat. They fought about who would wear the black hat.

What else do I want to do on my day? Write. This blog is an indulgence, one I don’t allow myself as much as I’d like. I’m in the middle of listening to a podcast called, “Our Friend David,” http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/472/our-friend-david 
which I pause. It’s impossible to concentrate on my own pithy prose while listening to a genius like (the late) David Rakoff who wrote about chicken poop as “olfactory insult.” I’m sad he died of cancer in 2012 at age 47. Just as I was sad to learn Joan Rivers died today at age 81.

Rakoff and Rivers endure not in heartbeats and breaths but in words. Which is part of this birthday writing exercise. Long after my ashes have blown off the Mount, disappeared over Spokane Falls or dissipated into Lake Erie, my words will remain – for everyone who chooses to read or ignore them. Happy birthday to me – cheers to what we keep: love of words. Words. And love.


 *Note: I downloaded the This American Life app from iTunes for $2.99 and got the whole podcast library.



Sunday, August 31, 2014

Make Up Meatballs

     Make Up Meatballs

There are times in your life (or in your month) when make up relations - I mean, talking, isn't practical. Or your partner won't go there. To the couch, I mean, to talk. That's when you must pull out Make Up Meatballs, especially if watching “The Godfather” on TV has inspired you to cook spaghetti. I won't bore you with reasons behind the need for making up. But lately, it feels like someone's swapped my Pinot Gris for pickle juice. The husband's been equally joyous at my even-temperedness and grace. Rather, he’s less-than- thrilled by my lack of both. As Forrest Gump said, "That's all I have to say about that."

I will, however, give you the recipe for Make Up Meatballs (which Pete cooked and I named). They work a treat when served with a steaming tangle of spaghetti, buttery garlic bread and a green salad and broccoli (the last two cleanse the palate between the second round of bread and sauce). 


Saute garlic in a teaspoon of olive oil. Add a couple tablespoons of canned tomato and garlic pasta sauce (I used a 420-gram can of Pam's tomato and garlic).
Scrape garlic and sauce mixture into a slow cooker with a can of chopped tomatoes and the remainder of the pasta sauce.
Add mixed Italian herbs and a splash of red wine.
Simmer, covered, on low for at least 4 hours along with meatballs (recipe follows).

Meatballs:
One-half kilo (1 pound) of ground beef (called mince in NZ)
1/4 cup milk 
½ cup bread crumbs
salt and pepper to taste
teaspoon minced garlic
1 egg, beaten
1/4 cup  mozzarella cheese
Italian herbs

Mix mince with all ingredients at once (Pete says, "I threw it in together and mixed it up like Playdough").

Fry meatballs in a "tiny bit of oil" (for Pete, that equates to 3 tablespoons) on  medium heat for 5 - 10 minutes. Let sit 10 minutes, then add meatballs to the slow cooker sauce.

Serve over steaming spaghetti and use to sop up garlic bread. Serve red wine to the adults.

Take your time eating this meal and see what develops. After 15 minutes, the meatballs take effect and your significant other will start talking about how everyone at the table can do nice things for each other. He may even nod as you recite one of the Mom Commandments: "If Mama's not happy, nobody's happy." 
 
Fiona likes sauce on the side
Mama's happy. Kiss and Make Up the Meatballs, Hon.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Thanks for the Memories - The Wedding Video

                       Thanks for the Memories
                           The Wedding Video


No gift is received in a vacuum (and men, no vacuum is a gift). We get presents while spinning grown-up plates: parent plates, work plates, household plates, spouse-got-laid-off plates. Imagine you’re juggling that kind of crockery, wondering how long before the job comes (or doesn’t); how long before the kids comply (or don’t); how long before you and your spouse climb back aboard the ship-in-the-old harbor… How long before you stop acting, well, um, bitchy.

You’re juggling while doing the breakfast, lunch and dinner dance…the dance you didn’t used to do because at least one of you was out slaying dragons each day and the other pretended she was Queen of the House when she wasn't at work while the kids were in school. In the middle of the pas de deux (step of two), you get the gift that reminds you why you’re here…

My sister, Heather, just sent me a picture montage of our July Spokane wedding. Heather drove more than four hours from a town in the Cascade mountains outside Seattle to attend the event. Since she’s also a talented photographer, I asked if she’d shoot the wedding. 

I don’t yet have the pictures, but now I have the montage, set to Pete and my song – “Easy,” by Lionel Richie. Heather’s photos and the way she edited the slide show capture the mood of the day – I watched the video with teary eyes, nodding my head to say, ‘Yes, that’s how it was.’ The man I so freely expressed love for on our wedding day(s) is the same guy who needs my affection more than ever.

Thanks, Sis. I needed that.

See the video here: Wedding Video


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Parting Gifts


Parting Gifts




I ate toast with Deb’s almond butter this morning. And another piece of toast with her pesto.  The top shelf of our fridge is filled with Deb’s condiments, which I requested just before she left. The idea occurred to me because my Air Force friend, Shelby, years ago presented me with a box of bottles before she and her family moved from Spokane to Colorado. Shelby said it was military tradition – the parting gift of mustards, sauces, chutneys and jams. We used the stuff to flavor, season and disguise food for months. With every splash of soy or dash of Tabasco, we thought of the Baslers.

Condiments are a sweet-and-sour inheritance from moving mates, a pragmatic solution to the question, ‘Do-I-throw-out-this-half-full-jam?’ Don’t pitch it, pass it on…

The night before she and her family left New Zealand to return to Spokane, Deb came by with two boxes of food. Not just ketchup and mustard, but a whole bag of frozen peas, a kilogram of ground beef, unopened bottles of cider and wine... “I hope it’s okay,” she said.

Ask Deb for a cup of milk and you’ll get a dairy farm. During our last girls’ night on the town (a raucous affair that had us sipping a single glass of wine for two hours at a restaurant whose menu is organized into chapters, plus an introduction, notes and epilogue), Deb picked up the tab.

“No, you got it last time,” I said. “It’s my turn.”

“Oh, I don’t keep track of that stuff,” she said.

She also bought our dinner at a Mexican restaurant two nights before she left. Don't tell her I told you.


The best people I know don’t keep score. They’ll give you a spare bed, bicycle, computer, a place to stay, then forget about it. That’s so Deb. So Shelby. So Lee, Leanne, Jennifer, Donna, Paula, Louise, Cheryl… 

We’re rich not because of stuff (never the stuff!) but for what friends teach us – long after we leave our parents' homes, friends instruct us how to be nicer. When they’re gone, we miss their presence – and their subliminal coaching. Any act of kindness I've performed the past two decades is largely the result of what my friends have shown me to do.

I didn’t know Deb before she moved to Mount Maunganui. Mutual friends from Spokane connected us after she got a job doctoring for a practice across the bridge in Tauranga. Deb had decided to fulfill a decades-old desire to live in New Zealand. Because she has a fiancĂ© and an ex-husband in the States, she’d have just one year to live the dream. Over several emails, I suggested places she might consider renting and steered her from neighborhoods I deemed dodgy. I circled the perimeter of a house she found online and told her it looked great.

We developed the immediate kinship two expats form with someone from their old town. We could talk about Spokane’s lake culture, harsh winters, favorite vacation spots and about more important issues – family and relationships.

Deb dove into New Zealand like a Kiwi, just back from overseas, tucks into steak and cheese pie – unreservedly, with gusto. She’d climb the Mount and cycle the Karangahake Gorge before noon, then spend the afternoon paddle boarding in the ocean. She said her adopted home was the first place she felt deep in her bones she belonged. 

Colleagues and patients embraced Doctor Deb, showering her with freshly-baked pies, mountain bike trips and that most precious commodity – time.  

The day she left, with tears in her eyes and a box of tissues tucked into her elbow, she said, “I feel like a baby being ripped from its mother’s arms.”

She paused while hanging a wide-brimmed straw hat in the hallway of her rental house. “You want this? It’s ours, but we're not bringing it.”

I’ll take the hat, but I’d rather you stay.

I write this not just as a see-you-later for my friend, but as a reminder we can all be the spark for someone else. We can revel in our corner of the world rather than lament what we lack. Our sunsets are numbered. Deb’s year abroad has flown for us both – another signal of time eluding our grasp, slipping like sand through a sieve.

A journalism mentor once told our class, “There are two kinds of stories – ‘Going on a journey,’ and ‘The stranger comes to town.’” 

Sometimes, when the stranger comes to town, she takes us on a journey – a trip to rediscover wonder and the possibilities of place.

And when wonder makes me hungry, I smile as I open yet another parting gift - the jar of almond butter in the fridge.


Monday, June 9, 2014

Pampered or Punked? Adventures in Spa Land

    Pampered or Punked? 
   Adventures in Spa Land

If you’re looking for unusual spa treatments, you can have a snake massage in Israel, a beer bath in the Czech Republic or a chocolate facial in Pennsylvania (according to this article: http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2012/feb/03/best-weird-spa-treatments ).

Or, if you’re in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty, you can visit Villa Donna Retreat.

Let’s start with what Villa Donna is not: it’s not a villa Under the Tuscan Sun. It’s not a resort. It’s not what one might typically associate with a spa. 
Villa Donna Retreat, Tauriko, Bay of Plenty


Villa Donna consists of a single-story brick house in Tauriko. Just follow the sign set against a bicycle and head for the carport to get inside.



My friends Donna (no connection with Villa Donna), Paula and I have driven here via the Mount and Tauranga for a day of pampering, combined with a cooking class. I’d encouraged my fellow running mates to spend $60 for a voucher on deal website Treat Me. http://treatme.co.nz/. The retreat was billed as a ‘healing, relaxing, enlightening and fun day…’ with ‘2-3 hours in the kitchen making and sampling ridiculously tasty food that’s extremely good for you…’

Two other women are waiting when we arrive. We’ll have at least five hours from start to finish. We spend 45 minutes in the kitchen. We make no food. Instead, we listen to owner Donna Bodell tell us 80 percent of diseases are caused by eating acid-forming foods such as meat, sugar and dairy which promote inflammation. She says eating alkaline foods – vegetables, fruits, seeds, beans, nuts… can stop or reverse these conditions.

Wasn’t the acid-alkaline diet 2013’s fad? Victoria Beckham tweeted about the alkaline diet last year. http://www.webmd.com/diet/alkaline-diets 

Is it possible to ‘alkalise’ our bodies? Articles in mainstream media say no. http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/diet-and-fitness/putting-the-ph-diet-to-the-acid-test-20110707-1h43w.html

I look for a ‘bullshit’ buzzer. Finding none, I open my mouth not to object, but to spoon in a concoction of purple oats, berries, seeds, almond milk and black currant powder. It’s delicious. Though, at $80 for 500 grams, I doubt I’ll buy any currant powder soon.


Donna B. asks if it’s okay if her dogs join us in the kitchen. We say sure. Two fluffy Pomeranian-style pooches enter from the pantry. One of them jumps up beside me on the couch and starts clawing at Paula, as if to say, ‘Love me, pet me now…’

Donna B. talks about exercise and says running will eventually ruin joints. “Those marathoners are crazy. I always ask if they’re running to something, or running from something,” she says.

My friend, Donna, replies, “Actually, the three of us are in a running club. We all run marathons.” 

Donna B. continues, undeterred: “If a client wants a running plan, I send her to a friend up the road. I won’t do it.”

A smirk tugs the corners of my mouth, which is busy chewing a piece of wheat-free almond and raisin bread, made by an artisan baker at the Mount. It’s scrummy, and I want another piece.

We move from running to the politics of sugar. Donna expounds on Donald Rumsfeld’s role in promoting artificial sugars. I wonder, ‘wasn’t Rumsfeld Defense Secretary?’ and then, ‘Why the hell are we getting a lecture about American politics?’ That part’s still unclear, but you can read more about the Rumsfeld controversy here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robbie-gennet/donald-rumsfeld-and-the-s_b_805581.html


Donna delivers a five-minute rhapsody about food steamers. She then serves steamed pumpkin and broccoli mixed with a chick pea curry she squeezes from a packet. “I bought these two for five dollars,” she says.

I duck into a 1970’s or 80’s-style bathroom to use the toilet. Cobwebs dangle from the ceiling and a slightly damp bath-sized towel hangs from a rod by the sink. Am I meant to use this to dry my hands? I wipe them on my jeans instead.

For the next part of our pampering day, we can choose an hour sauna and spa or personal training session. We’ve opted for the former, since we crazy runners get plenty of exercise whilst ruining our joints.

We change into swimsuits in a bedroom whose lavender-colored walls feature drips and dribbles of dried paint. It’s as if a toddler flung buckets around to see what would happen. The room between the sauna and spa is carpeted in a thick shag that reminds me of the 80’s - all big hair and shoulder pads.


We try the sauna first. The temperature’s hot, yet comfortable enough to sit for 15 minutes. Two sprays of orchids adorn the wooden seats. I pick one up and feel it. Fabric.

Villa Donna Spa

Next, we step into the spa pool, where a brown film clings just beneath whirling white bubbles. I snap a picture as we ponder the gunk’s origin. “Maybe they don’t use chemicals, and it’s natural, like what washes up from the sea?” asks Paula, with hope in her voice.

My friends are good sports

Our pampering day ends with a 45-minute massage. Donna B. and her husband,  Gordon, take turns massaging the five of us. The Villa Donna website mentions the couple has studied at massage therapy schools, but doesn’t clarify whether either of them earned a diploma or certificate. 

“Donna has 8 years experience in massage, having studied at the New Zealand College of Massage for a diploma in therapeutic massage.”

“Gordon studied at the New Zealand School of Massage Therapy, specialising in Sports and Relaxation Massage.”

My friends are wary of man massage. I’ve been kneaded by at least a dozen therapists, about a quarter of whom were men. I volunteer for Gordon.

His business card says, ‘Body Wizard.’ Gordon asks me if I have any trouble spots. I mention a dodgy shoulder and say my legs are tight, thanks to running.

“Oh, I hate running,” says Gordon.

“It’s great,” I insist. “I got out on the beach before sunrise this morning at low tide and it was beautiful.”

“Well, joy to the fucking world,” says Gordon.

Do they teach that at massage school? Instruct your client to lay face down with her head in the cradle and say ‘fuck.’ A lot.

Gordon searches the cause of my sore shoulder, first around my neck, then, in my forearm. “Bingo,” he says. Then, “Fuck, yeah.”

I stop counting after eight ‘fucks.’ I have a three (spoken) ‘fuck’ massage maximum. Any more than that, and I’ll out you. Like this.

“Alright, beautiful. I’m going to hold the towel up and have you roll over,” says Gordon.

I do, and Gordo exchanges one towel for a fresh, hot one. It’s a nice touch. Gordon’s hands are firm. They don’t stray to forbidden zones (though he does pull my underwear half-way down my butt as I lay face down). 

He stops in the middle of massaging my hand to examine my wedding ring. "Wow, that's a sparkler," he says.  


He ends with a head and neck massage, pauses at the end, then says, “You are beautiful. Take your time getting up.”

Beautiful, like in a Zen ‘life is beautiful way,’ right? A Buddha figure sits atop a corner desk.  Four-foot-tall Shrek and Donkey plush toys adorn another corner. Siddhartha and DreamWorks are battling for my mind. Or my body.

I quickly pull the robe back on and Gordon re-enters the room. “I want to see if I can fix that shoulder, once and for all.” He steps behind me and asks if the robe is closed at the front. It is. “Good,” he says. “You know, this job would be a hell of a lot easier if I were blind or gay.”

He kneads my shoulder, then kneels before me, his palm parallel to mine. I’m guessing he thinks he’s channeling some kind of energy. “Bingo,” he says. “Fuck, yeah.”

I change and return to the kitchen.  I compare notes with the other two guests, a mother-daughter duo. The daughter had bought the Treat Me voucher for her mum as a Mother’s Day gift. “Sorry, Mum,” she says. The Mum laughs it off. The daughter tells us, “I already know a lot about nutrition – I wish they would’ve asked about that beforehand.”

On the way home, Paula and Donna say their therapist, Donna B. had a very light touch and yanked their underwear into their butt cracks for reasons unknown. Do they teach that in massage school?

My dodgy shoulder got some relief that day (but flared up again the next). Still, I question the wisdom of spending $60 and five hours with strangers at their home in the wop-wops (boondocks). At least my friends and I have something to laugh about.

Joy to the fucking world.